Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty in learning to read and spell. Approximately 10% of children in English-speaking countries are diagnosed as dyslexia. Dyslexia can result in tremendous social, emotional and economical costs for children and their families and society.

Based on the theories of reading and reading acquisition for dyslexia and existing research on tangible user interfaces (TUIs), we presented PhonoBlocks, a tangible reading system that leverages the use of embedded dynamic colour cues and 3D tangible letters to help children with or at-risk for dyslexia to learn to read and spell the alphabetic principle of English. Our design process is detailed in PhonoBlocks Design Process Book.

PhD Project: research, ideation, design, prototyping, evaluation

My Role: student design lead (research, storyboard, technical solution, UI and interaction design, prototype construction,  focus groups, user studies)

Timeline: 2013-2017


In order to better understand the problem space, we conducted secondary research by Reading research papers on theories of the causes and interventions for dyslexia, best instruction in practice, and TUI research to learn about related work in the field.

We did competitive analysis by examining the existing reading apps and systems for children to determine key features and identify gaps that exist.

We conducted focus groups with 6 tutors at the Kenneth Gorden Maplewood School (North-Vancouver,B.C. Canada) that specializes in teaching children with reading difficulties to understand how they teach the children.

We sit in one-to-one intervention sessions conducted by educational experts at the Lord Strathcona Elementary School (Vancouver, B.C. Canada) and took on-site observational notes about the training process.


1. What is the most challenge task for the children with or at-risk for dyslexia during reading acquisition?

Learning the alphabetic principle, i.e., how letters associate with sounds.

2. What does the current reading intervention look like? How do tutors think the advantages and disadvantages?

Multisensory instructions use multiple senses and physical letter tiles to draw children’s attention and help them to associate letters and sounds; Heavy workload and difficult to illustrate when and how sounds change in various alphabetic rules.

3. What features are needed in a tool to facilitate an effective teaching/learning environment?

a. lowercase letters with edges enabling letter tracing activity

b. both the instruction and the practice modes

c. explicitly highlighting letter-sound relations

Design opportunities: leverage the use of dynamic colour cue and tactile cue to support the learning of letter-sound correspondences.

Successful Factors in Traditional Multisensory Instructions


We first identified three design challenges based on our investigation.We then sketched  potential design solutions for each aspect, and analyzed their advantages and disadvantages.

Three design challenges:

1. How to design physical letters (shape, materials and technical solution)?

2. How to design the mappings between physical representations and digital representations (based on framework proposed by Sara Price, 2003).

3. How to design mappings between colours,letter symbols and letter sounds?


We proposed the design of PhonoBlocks, a tangible reading system support children aged 7-9 year old to learn to read and spell the alphabetic principle. The two core design features of our system are (1) embedded dynamic colour cues that help to draw children’s attention to letter-sound correspondences and explicit highlight the letter sound change moments, and (2) 3D tangible letters with hard edges which support letter manipulation and tracing activities.

In order to support dynamic colour cues, we decided to embed lights into 3D tangible letters. We tried different types of acrylics with various thickness and transparencies.We also tested both the LED lights and LED strips, and different electronic components (e.g. coppers nails, pogo pins) for connecting the LED circuits to our Micro-Controller Arduino Mega.

Evaluation #1

Case Study with 10 Children with Dyslexia 

We first conducted a case study with ten monolingual English-speaking children with dyslexia using the initial version of PhonoBlocks at a private specialized school in Canada. However, the results showed no consistent learning gains and identified some issues with system and case study design.

Expert Review

The results led us to consult with an early childhood education expert (Dr. Maureen Hoskyn) who has knowledge of the literature on bi-literacy acquisition and reading interventions for children with learning disabilities. We conducted two expert review sessions with this education expert and presented a revised PhonoBlocks.

Design Refinement 

Based on the study results and suggestions got in expert reviews, we refined our design by:

1. narrowing down the number of colours used in each activity and to only highlight the part of each reading rule we wanted to emphasize in order to better attract children’s attention.

2. Redesigning the optimal timing of each colour change (i.e., when the letter sound changes) and added a colour flash to draw attention to the related sound changes produced by adding letters.

Evaluation #2

Case Study with 8 Children At-Risk for Dyslexia 

We then conducted a second case study to evaluate the revised system with eight at-risk monolingual English-speaking children 7-8 years old at an urban public elementary school in Canada. We began to work with at-risk children in public schools, rather than children diagnosed with dyslexia at a private institution, for ethical and access reasons. In public schools, many at-risk children do not have access to extra supports or have failed to progress, and so it was deemed acceptable by the school board to use class time for PhonoBlocks instruction.

The results were encouraging: at-risk English-speaking children achieved significant learning gains after PhonoBlocks instruction compared to their baseline performances and also maintained their progress one month later after post-test. The results also suggested design features of our system that enabled behaviours that were correlated with learning.

Evaluation #3

Case Study with 10 Children Who Learn English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

We also conducted a third case study to evaluate our system with ten Mandarin -speaking children 8 years old who learn English as a foreign language (EFL) at an urban public elementary school in China.

We explored if our system can also work for EFL Mandarin-speaking children, and if the results observed in at-risk monolingual English-speaking children can be generalized to another population.We also wanted to explore if (and how) any unique learning behaviours of Mandarin-speaking EFL children can inform our design.

The results showed the EFL Mandarin-speaking children achieved significant learning gains relative to their baseline performance. These results combined with our qualitative analysis of the ways the children interacted with the system suggest that the core design features of TUIs positively impacted learning. We compared the results with the results from study #2 with at-risk monolingual English speaking children using PhonoBlocks.

Design Knowledge

1. Use embedded dynamic colour cues with flashing to attract attention

2. Create 3D tangible letter forms and workplace to enable epistemic actions which simplify reading and spelling tasks

3. Use 3D forms and tasks that enable hands-on interaction, which improves attention and makes learning visible

4. EFL: Focus on vowel sounds and adjusting between the “coarse” and “fine” colour-coding strategies based on different needs

5. EFL: Start with words that have concrete meaning and carefully design culturally appropriate pictures for words

6. EFL: Support tangible tools that encourage organizational strategies



Dr. Alissa N. Antle: Project Lead (Supervisor in SIAT)

Dr. Maureen Hoskyn: Project Lead (Faculty of Education Director, Centre for Research on Early Child Health and Education)

Min Fan: Student Design Lead

Emily S. Cramer: Unity Program